Performance artist S.T. Shimi values the dangerous necessity of artistic expression

BO-ring! But wait. The small college was Dartmouth. And the big city is San Antonio. For most of the theater world, San Antonio is the place you leave, even if the career you have in mind is fairly conventional. Light-opera

S.T. Shimi in her solo performance piece, In the Garden, at the Jump-Start Theater. Photo by Mark Greenberg
tenors, comedic character actors, and Shakespearean leading men - they all stream like salmon spawning toward the mecca of the East Coast.

But S.T. Shimi is comfortable swimming against the stream. She has been doing it all her life. When she came to San Antonio in 1994, fresh from graduation, it was as an Asian contemporary performance artist who identified as queer, leftist, atheist. She came to intern at Jump-Start Performance Company, drawn by its mission statement (to give a voice to the voiceless) and its national reputation (of which many locals remain unaware).

Almost 10 years later, she is a company member, an Arts-in-Education Instructor, and the Coordinator of W-I-P (Wednesdays-in-Performance/Works-in-Progress), a monthly dance workshop/showcase. She recently completed her fourth solo work - developed through Jump-Start's Critical Response Process (a structure that allows the artist to control feedback and solicit constructive suggestions) and directed by Jump-Start Executive Director Steve Bailey. While many of her fellow graduates are finally getting their first productions, Shimi has already presented her uncanny take on a list of cocktail-party taboos: ethnicity, sexuality/gender, religion, and politics.

Bailey points out that this sort of progress is expected at Jump-Start. "We're here to do just that," he says. "We consider ourselves a laboratory for the research and development of new performance work." Bailey has been closely involved in the development of each of Shimi's pieces, and She credits him - along with Karavan Dance Company's Karen Barbee Adkisson, who gave her the movement vocabulary that informs much of her work - as one of her most significant influences. It was Bailey who suggested she develop a short dance piece that she had performed at a WIP event in 1999 into a fully-staged solo performance work, which later became Tourist Trap.

In Tourist Trap, Shimi addresses ethnicity and her "outsider" status and her "outsider" identity. Her work has since continued to dip into the deep well of her response to her own identity. Her second piece, Lost in Translation, deals with "gender/sexual identity politics seen through the lens of South Asian-ness. Each segment of the show tied in some way to an Indian myth or fable that I re-/de-constructed in a feminist way." Southern Discomfort followed - something she calls "both a spiky valentine to Texas and a way to express my atheism. Part of the impetus for the piece was an intellectual inquiry: If religion is said to inspire great/beautiful art, can the same be said of atheism?"

Stylistically, Shimi makes the theoretical performative. "I guess I do start thinking about my pieces as intellectual inquiries first," she agrees. "But then as other inspirations filter in - stories, music, an arresting image - things start to layer themselves, and hopefully the work doesn't come across as mannered, but interesting and visceral."

Her most recent work, In the Garden, completes a cycle that began when Shimi was 15. An incident of political repression in her native Singapore made a deep impression on her about the dangerous necessity of artistic expression. She continues to regard those events as significantly influencing her goals as an artist. Years later, for a Senior Fellowship project at Dartmouth, she used those memories to create In the Garden, a cautionary fable about the trade-offs people make between personal/artistic autonomy and government "protection." She had not intended to re-visit the piece. Yet soon after the events of 9-11, Shimi staged a reading of In the Garden as a response to "the rah-rah-ness and willingness of the general public to let the government do whatever in the name of the 'greater good.'"

As a part of the reading, she submitted the script to the Critical Response Process. She took many of the suggestions generated, made some script changes, and began working with Bailey

Dancer, choreographer and performance artist Shimi performs during the 2003 Miss Southtown pageant. Photo by Mark Greenberg
to create a fully-staged production for performance the following season. The result is a beautiful, disorienting, and masterful work. Bailey praises it as an opportunity for someone who has "developed herself so much as a dancer and choreographer over the last several years" to go back to her theater roots. Shimi agrees. "I feel much better about the piece now than I did then. Doing it now, when the issues seem particularly urgent and timely, is deeply satisfying, and makes the piece resonate for me beyond its original purpose, which was to deal with a specific event that happened at a specific time in a specific country. Stylistically, it is also a step forward as much as a personal circle - for me and for the people who know my work here."

What's next? "As long as the world is fucked up there will be ironies and contradictions to make theater out of." She loves the ironies and contradictions, the funky illumination they provide.

When we spoke, Shimi was preparing to give a lecture at Dartmouth. What did she plan to say to the East Coast theater students of today? "I hope to offer possibilities. What's important is that you find your voice in theater. I think I'm going to talk about how a different model of theater can make your artistic voice audible and possible. That there's more to your future than New York or Actor Showcases in LA." After all, she points out, saying specifically about In The Garden what could be said about all of her work at Jump-Start, "I did this beautiful piece. In Texas. In San Antonio." •

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